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05 07 2008

I was extremely excited today to receive an email from Clearleft that I had been selected to be a beta tester for their new application, Silverback. Silverback is a user testing application for Macs only that makes use of the hardware available to create a pseudo-user testing environment on demand.

I ran a few tests on coworkers this morning using the application and was simply blown away by its ease of use and useful features. Within 60 seconds I had my first project setup, my first user profile created and was running a test of Clockwork’s products. The most exciting part came when I ended the first test and exported the Quicktime movie file that was created.

Opening up the movie I was greeted by a full scale representation of my desktop, along with a picture-in-picture view of the user in the lower right hand corner. The application recorded everything that the webcam could see for facial reactions as well as audio from my Macbook Pro’s built in microphone. The screencast of the entire desktop allowed for me to watch what the user was doing as well as reported any clicks with small overlaid circles.

This type of basic user testing functionality built into my laptop and organized neatly in one application simply blew me away. It’s a great substitute for anyone without a dedicated testing lab (which few small scale companies have available), and even if you do have one; it makes for an awesome portable test station, no extra cameras or one way mirrors needed.

I’ll be posting more about my beta experiences in the near future, but it would be suffice to say that Silverback will be a must have application for anyone working on creating websites or interfaces for web applications. Since it allows for full desktop usage I’m sure it would also be super useful for anyone testing desktop applications as well.

For the latest on Silverback, you can follow the Silverback Twitter Account.

Enjoy the screenshots! Click them to view a larger version on Flickr:

Project CreatedNew project created
Adding a Test SessionCreating a new test session
After Finishing a SessionSession finished
Exporting VideoExporting Video
Twenty-four

Responses

  1. Thanks for the review. Silverback sounds really cool!

  2. Thanks for the insight…
    I have to say it looks great and by the sounds of it - easy to use :)
    curious to hear more…

  3. Ooo lucky! Silverback looks to be totally awesome - built by some totally awesome people.

  4. Random question. What’s the app in your dock right above Silverback? It doesn’t look familiar…

    And Silberback sounds great. Color me jealous.

  5. Nice review.

    @Jimmy: The app you’re referring to is LinoType FontExplorer. It’s a free (and awesome) font management application for the Mac.

  6. Looks lovely, still waiting my invite :)

    What actions can you take once a recording has been made - other than watching it?

  7. @Simon Douglas: Silverback exports the movie files as Quicktime Movies. So you have the standard play/rewind/fast-forward functionality from there. A great strength of this approach means you can use Silverback from your laptop to test someone and then email or upload the movie to the internet for other parties to view and make decisions on.

    Compare that method to having it play only in Silverback or making it difficult to email the movie file, and you can see the remote testing capabilities that this has. Or, even locally, as you can database the movies on your own servers and so on.

  8. We’ve been doing some usability testing these days (hoping for a beta invite to Silverback, didn’t make it this round) and I’m curious about Silverback on the logging/analysis side of things? From your description, it sounds very similar to ScreenFlow (http://www.varasoftware.com/products/screenflow/) with projects and users, but does it do any additional analysis of activities afterwards?

    We’ve looked at Morae which seems to be a popular choice, but being Windows only sucks (we’re all Mac folks ‘round here :) and it’s a lot pricier than ScreenFlow for example.

  9. Hey Kyle,

    Thanks for the awesome review. Really glad you like the app. If you’ve got any thoughts or suggestions about the app, feel free to drop us a line with your feedback.

    Happy testing :-)

  10. Silverback is such an awesome concept. I know similar programs have existed for a while, but from what I’ve seen, it looks like Silverback presents a new method.

    Shame its Mac-only for now. For a lowly high school student such as myself, I can’t warrant spending the money on a Macbook Pro until college.

    Nice review. Can’t wait to hear more about it.

  11. @Lux: While there is a lot of good stuff in what Silverback tracks in the movies, it is a bit slim on creating textual or data records afterwards. I’ve brought this up lightly in my initial feedback to them; and I’m sure as I use the app more in the next week this may become more apparent.

    However, they do have a wonderfully large text input field for notes that can be entered from the interface for whatever you may need. Checking out the software you linked, they do seem relatively similar but Screenflow seems to be lacking audio recording or facial recording. I didn’t look too in-depth but these are some of the best features of Silverback.

    If you’re administering a user test and have specific tasks a user should go through, you could provide them verbally and they would be picked up by the microphone and into the video. Handy!

    @Andy Budd: Thanks for dropping by. Pleasure to have you here and a pleasure to use your new app! I submitted some initial feedback after a few quick plays with it this morning and will be trying to perform more formal user tests with it within the week. More feedback to come, but I love it so far!

    @Kevin Zak: While it may be Mac only, that also provides some benefits of assumption, all Mac laptops have webcams and microphones built in and can be activated by the application seamlessly. This cannot be said for the myriad of PC products with their infinite hardware combinations.

  12. @Kyle, @Lux My initial thought was that it seemed a lot like Screenflow (which does record audio and video, from internal and external sources, all of which are kept in separate tracks, for editing after the fact), hence my question regarding additional features.

    Obviously, the notion of projects and uers as an organisational is useful, as well as commentary. The other question would be regarding its compression capability - fullscreen screencasts can be huge, and if you’re uploading to colleagues…

    From what I’ve seen, it looks really attracive and easy to use, and providing it’s reasonable (ScreenFlow costs £65), it looks like a great tool for user testing.

  13. Thanks for review…

  14. It’s been about a year since I’ve done lo-fi usability testing, but I used Adobe Breeze (which looks like it may be called Acrobat Connect Pro now?). My guess is that Silverback is much cheaper, but one of the most valuable features of Breeze is that you can broadcast the user test live as it’s happening. This simulates the two-way mirror of formal usability labs, allowing an entire team to watch the usability test as it progresses, and if necessary chime in with additional tasks/or follow up questions.

    And I have to agree that being mac only is kind of a bummer. Every user test I’ve ever facilitated was done on a pc…it’s still the majority and people that use pc’s get easily thrown off by something as simple as the ctrl vs. apple keys.

    Wow I sound like a debbie downer. I’ll put a smiley face in here to make up for it :)

  15. @Simon Douglas: With default settings the filesizes are a bit large. A one minute quick run was 88MB, and a 10 minute user test was almost 900MB. Granted, the resultant file is a .mov that could be compressed further as needed. Audio and the picture-in-picture webcam can be disabled to save filesize if unnecessary, and you can even pick the best webcam size for your needs. Anywhere from 160 by 120, all the way up to 640 by 480. Obviously larger webcam recordings will up file size yet again.

  16. We’re forgetting the most important thing here: Silverback’s beta page does layers better than i’ve seen on the web.

  17. Awesome. Finally an easy way to get solid, detailed user experience testing for… er… 6% of our visitors.

  18. @steve: I think you misunderstand, Silverback is an application that you install on a particular laptop, then you give that laptop to another user for the length of the test. It doesn’t record all of your website visitors who are on Macs.

  19. Heh, no, I understood that perfectly; actually you misunderstand me I think.

    What I mean is that 6% of our visitors are on Macs, which I’m afraid imho means it’s not a very representative platform for user experience testing. Yes, of course, web apps are supposed to be browser neutral and you’re doing UAT not technical compatibility testing, etc, etc; but I’m afraid in reality I don’t believe the average Win+IE punter, when plonked in front of OS X and Safari, is going to be completely and utterly unaffected by the platform. I know whenever I surf on a mate’s mac I find Safari and OS X in general all fiddly, things not where I expect them, accidentally close things I don’t mean to, etc.

  20. In my experience the testing platform really doesn’t make much difference as people are not interacting with the OS. Instead they are interacting with the site through a browser. If you have concerns about using Safari then Firefox is a good alternative that many subjects will be familiar with. You can also hook up a two button mouse for those people hooked on the right click. And in all honesty if you can run usability tests on paper prototypes then the minor OS differences shouldn’t be a problem.

  21. @steve: You’re right, I did misunderstand you.

    However, there is no reason why you couldn’t fire up parallels and use a Windows style keyboard for the user tests. Start up Silverback, flip over to Windows and have them use Internet Explorer if necessary, or whatever browser they’re familiar with to reduce error.

  22. As much as I’d love to run this on one of my bigger projects, I feel it is a bit too constricting to force the users use my desktop to demo a website. I’d rather have them work their way on their own machine. All of them use Windows, so having to teach them how to surf the site a Mac on an unfamiliar machine would be too much of a hassle. Is there a similar Windows version of this program?

  23. I have to agree that being mac only is kind of a bummer. Every user test I’ve ever facilitated was done on a pc…it’s still the majority and people that use pc’s get easily thrown off by something as simple as the ctrl vs. apple keys.

    And I want to thank this article

  24. We do all our testing on a Mac and have never come across any issues with people using a Mac vs. PC. However if people do get confused by things such as ctrl vs apple keys, you simply discount the effect they had and move. After all, you’re looking to test the usability of the interface, not peoples skill with the keyboard or OS.